polis

polis

[poh-lis]

In ancient Greece, an independent city and its surrounding region under a unified government. A polis might originate from the natural divisions of mountains and sea and from local tribal and cult divisions. Usually the town was walled and contained a citadel on raised ground (acropolis) and a marketplace (agora). Government was centred in the town; usually there was an assembly of citizens, a council, and magistrates. Ideally, all citizens participated in the government and in the cults, as well as in defense and economy. Women, minors, metics, and slaves were not citizens. Hellenism spread many of the institutions into the Middle East. Seealso Athens; city-state; Sparta; Thebes.

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A polis (πόλις, pronunciation [pól.is], ['pɒl.ɪs] in English) -- plural: poleis (πόλεις, pronunciation [pól.eːs], ['pɒl.eɪz] in English) -- is a city, a city-state and also citizenship and body of citizens. When used to describe Classical Athens and its contemporaries, polis is often translated as "city-state."

The word originates from the ancient Greek city-states, which developed during the Archaic period, the ancestor of city, state and citizenship, and persisted (though with decreasing influence) well into Roman times, when the equivalent Latin word was civitas, also meaning 'citizenhood', while municipium applied to a non-sovereign local entity. The term city-state which originated in English (alongside the German Stadtstaat) does not fully translate the Greek term. The poleis were not like other primordial ancient city-states like Tyre or Sidon, which were ruled by a king or a small oligarchy, but rather a political entity ruled by its body of citizens. The traditional view of archaeologists, that the appearance of urbanization at excavation sites could be read as a sufficient index for the development of a polis was criticised by François Polignac in 1984 and has not been taken for granted in recent decades: the polis of Sparta for example was established in a network of villages.The term polis which in archaic Greece meant city, changed with the development of the governance center in the city to indicate state (which included its surrounding villages), and finally with the emergence of a citizenship notion between the land owners it came to describe the entire body of citizens. The ancient Greeks didn't refer to Athens, Sparta, Thebes and other poleis as such; they rather spoke of the Athenians, Lacedaemonians, Thebans and so on. The body of citizens came to be the most important meaning of the term polis in ancient Greece.

The Ancient Greek term which specifically meant the totality of urban buildings and spaces was ἄστυ ([ásty] in IPA), asty.

History

The bounds of the ancient polis often centered around a citadel, called the acropolis, and would of necessity also have an agora (market) and typically one or more temples and a gymnasium. Note that many of a polis' citizens would have lived in the suburbs or countryside. The Greeks did not regard the polis as a territorial grouping so much as a religious and political association: while the polis would control territory and colonies beyond the city itself, the polis would not simply consist of a geographical area.

Each city was composed of several tribes or demes, which were in turn composed of phratries, and finally gentes. Metics (resident foreigners) and slaves lay outside this organization. Birth typically determined citizenship. Each polis would also worship a number of patron deities for protection and kept its own particular festivals and customs.

In the East beyond Asia Minor a major instrument of hellenization by Alexander the Great was the polis. He is said to have founded no fewer than seventy cities, destined to become centers of Greek influence; and the great majority of these were in lands in which city-life was almost unknown. In this respect his example was emulated by his successors, the diadochi.

Polis was frequently divided into three types of inhabitants. The first, and highest, “group” of inhabitants are citizens with political rights. Then there are the citizens without political rights. Lastly there are the non-citizens.

Derived words

Derivatives of polis are common in many modern European languages. This is indicative of the influence of the polis-centred Hellenic world view. Derivative words in English include policy, polity, police and politics. In Greek, words deriving from polis include politēs and politismos, whose exact equivalents in Latin, Romance and other European languages, respectively civis (citizen), civilisatio (civilization) etc are similarly derived.

A number of words end in the word "-polis". Most refer to a special kind of city and/or state. Some examples are:

Other refer to part of a city or a group of cities, such as:

  • Acropolis, 'high city' — upper part of a polis, often citadel and/or site of major temple(s).
  • Decapolis, a group of ten cities
  • Dodecapolis, a group of twelve cities
  • Pentapolis, a group of five cities
  • Tripolis, a group of three cities, retained in the names of a Tripoli in Libya and a namesake in Lebanon

Names

Polis, Cyprus

Located on the north-west coast of Cyprus is the town of Polis, or Polis Chrysochous (Greek: Πόλις Χρυσοχούς), situated within the Paphos District and on the edge of the Akamas peninsula. During the Cypro-Classical period, Polis became one of the most important ancient Cypriot city-kingdoms on the island, with important commercial relations with the eastern Aegean Islands, Attica and Corinth. The town is also well known due to its mythological history, including the site of the "Baths of Aphrodite".

Other cities

The names of several other towns and cities in Europe and the Middle East have contained the suffix "-polis" since antiquity; or currently feature modernized spellings, such as "-pol". Notable examples include:

The names of other cities were also given the suffix "-polis" after antiquity, either referring to ancient names or simply unrelated:

Notes

Further reading

  • Hansen, Mogens Herman. Polis: An Introduction to the Ancient Greek City-State. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006 (hardcover, ISBN 0-19-920849-2; paperback, ISBN 0-19-920850-6).

See also

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